Everybody I knew was going to NYC — and I was leaving. Leaving of my own, free, 21 year-old will. Moreover, I wasn’t going to the Bermudas or [fill in the blank with your furthest vacation destination]. I wasn’t going to stretch my legs on an Instagram-perfect beach. I was going 5000 miles away. To the place where I was born but hadn’t lived for over 12 years. And I was going to try to make it work.
I came to the U.S. like many immigrants’ children — just a few years into socially conscious life. Luckily, I already knew the language well enough in theory to pick up the practical part fast enough. By the time I was 21, I was a young aspiring concert pianist.
However, my peculiar mindset made me continuously uncomfortable in the show-business environment of NYC. And I started considering challenging fate like never before, giving it a real shake-up. I felt it was high time to either cut back all strings with the past or gather up the courage, rediscover that past, and finally decide for myself. I thought I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try.
In the beginning
Stepping out of the airport, there was stress and enthusiasm. I alternated between the two, while my family and long-time family friends were all enthusiasm. They gathered around me as if I were an exhibit proving the existence of life on Mars, and all asked the same question: why did you come back?
7 years later, I still get asked the question all the time. And I still don’t have a perfect answer.
And so I started living on my [meager] savings while looking for an easy at-home job to support myself while I check things out. Teaching English was easy and very popular — or so I figured.
It was then, when I first got down to business, that I understood a bit of ancient wisdom:
The people who sound happiest for you turn their backs fastest when you need a bit of friendly help.
A few months into the “finding work” quest, I ran into a very enthusiastic woman — a concert hall manager who got me into playing a “charity” solo recital at her venue (which easily got a full house) and lovingly embraced me whenever we met:
My dear, how on earth are you still alive?
I was still wondering where my concert payment had gone to — I didn’t want to become a charity case myself. At the time, she perfectly knew about my endeavors to get a small English group together and also knew everyone worth knowing in town. But never did I get a student by word of mouth recommendation from any such “well-wishers”.
Around then, I understood in all earnestness: I would have to depend only on myself if I want this “starting from scratch” thing to work.
And I put up one Advanced English online ad after another, and little by little started getting calls from prospective students. After a while, I got enough adult students to support myself comfortably while having lots of time to devote to my music. I still remember some of those students with great respect and some of those lessons with righteous pride.
For example, studying Hamlet’s full monologue [unedited, uncut] with an advanced student who was chief engineer at an international company.
As 90% of my students were much older than I, working successful jobs at international companies where they needed English every day, for me this was also an opportunity to learn to professionally communicate — and teach — people without feeling psychologically constrained because of my young age. Rather, I put all of my efforts into teaching and explaining things at the level I could due to my experience of living the better half of my life in an English-speaking country combined with my knowledge of the intricacies of grammar. I never felt afraid of my age, only about not giving my best. Little did I know how useful this experience would later prove.
2 years later
After two years in my hometown, I had my English students and several important concerts behind my belt, including two as soloist with orchestra.
And then I caught myself thinking— once, twice, recurring: if I want to achieve more, I have to get back to a megalopolis, or at least close. As close as my financial situation would allow. This wasn’t an easy decision, as I hated twitching once again after just starting to grow roots. But I also understood that anyone who isn’t moving forward is moving back. And I was craving new opportunities.
It took me another year to get the plan straight and all the details in order. I didn’t want to live in the midst of a huge polluted city, but I needed to have it close by, for work and cultural purposes. So, I thought: a nice house in the suburbs may just be fine. I would work in the city and live in my house amidst nature, free to play the piano in my off hours without ever bothering a single neighbor (or more honestly, having them bother me with tapping the ceiling, mop in hand at 8pm. )
Reality was a bit different: the closest house I could afford was an hour and a half by car from the city. And I didn’t have a car. But no matter — being used to NYC traffic, I knew what it was like to get stuck in one-and-a half hour traffic jams. I traveled there by bus every other day to study and survived to tell the story. So, could it really be much worse?
Never ask ‘well-wishers’ for advice
My friends thought this was a terrible decision. Needless to say, I was looking forward to a different reaction. At least to a little encouragement.
One of them laid the cards out on the table as soon as I mentioned a few problems that I ran into in the process.
“All this time, I’ve been hoping for something to go wrong with your plan,” he told me over the phone. “You’re making a big mistake.”
Aha, I thought. You bet I made a bigger mistake when I ignored the many bouquets you brought me.
But if I was hoping others with no ego conflict involved would be more optimistic, I was wrong there too.
“Why do you need that?” was the prevailing question, just as before it was “Why did you come back?”
There was just one person who said, “You’re doing the right thing. There’s nothing more for you to do here.”
And one other who told me,
“Don’t be afraid that you don’t have a car, or a job, or even a house out there yet. You will have all that. I don’t doubt it at all.”
He wasn’t a close friend. Just a good acquaintance. But I’ll always remember those words fondly and gratefully.
For everyone who has a friend, or just a person in need of encouragement right now: never underestimate the power your words have. Use them wisely. Use them to heal, not kill.
Here I am
Fast forward another 4 years. I went through a hell of a roller coaster ride in these years. I haven’t looked back but I never really know what’s ahead. That’s life for all of us.
All I know is that I keep achieving many of the things I’ve always wanted: I have a favorite writing job, a beloved gift — music — that’s always with me and that I keep developing, and the city of my dreams — a world cultural center before me.
Even when I’m sad or tired, I can stroll along one of the canals, go to the opera or the museum and have fun being myself. I can take my laptop and work in a cafe, or take it out of town and breathe in lots of fresh air, giant constellations, and mindfulness in the suburbs — all while staying on a deadline. I communicate with my friends when I want to and take personal time when I need to.
I can easily interview international company CEOs and COOs because I’ve been there and done that. And I fondly remember the very first experience that has made this possible: those English lessons to management-position students 20–30 years older than I.
Describing all of my adventures in these 7 years would take a novel to fit, but all I know is that I’ve never regretted my initial decision.
I’ve stayed as bilingual at heart as in my speech, but enjoy writing mostly in English. I do that both for work and my own purposes. I understand and value people from both sides of the globe and try not to judge, ever. Just as I had never spoken ill of home in the U.S., neither do I ever speak maliciously of the U.S. at home, even though there’s a lot of nasty politics between our countries. I avoid talking politics insofar as they don’t baffle me with a whole pack of lies. I try to always see through to the people, not the propaganda. I’ve remained myself, but have opened up countless new sides of my character.
All because I once decided to give another chance to the other side of the coin. The decision both terrified and intrigued me, just as any new decision does today. I think I’ll always be that way — bold and cautious. But the perspective I gained and continue to gain every day, I wouldn’t trade for anything on either side of our shared world.
Some time ago, I got an email from that person who considered my move “a big mistake.” He wanted to find out how my life is. I replied with a nice message and casually mentioned how satisfied I am with having gone through with my decision to move, despite the fact that nearly every friend said I was wrong. I then politely inquired about his family and warmly closed.
The reply never came.
Photo by Peter Bucks on Unsplash